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Rep. John Conyers

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President Has Authority and Moral Obligation to Invoke the 14th Amendment to Avoid Economic Catastrophe

Posted: 07/31/11 12:17 AM ET

Today in a letter to President Obama, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver and I called on President Obama to raise the debt ceiling under the authority of the 14th Amendment.

Below is the text of the letter:

Dear Mr. President:

We urge you to invoke section 4 of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution to raise the debt ceiling and enable the United States government to meet its financial obligations if Congress fails to act in time. We believe that you have both the authority and a moral obligation to do so in order to avoid an economic catastrophe of historic proportions.

Since the founding of the Republic, the United States has always honored its debts, from assuming the obligations incurred during the Revolutionary War, to the present day. As a result, the United States continues to enjoy an outstanding credit rating and historically low interest rates. We must not allow a political deadlock to cause the United States to default for the first time in our history. The consequences of a default would be catastrophic. All three credit rating agencies have cautioned that default would result in a downgrading of our credit rating and a substantial increase in borrowing costs.

In addition to putting our nation's bond rating at risk along with increase interest rates that it will cause, failure to increase the debt limit would imperil every aspect of the federal government, from Social Security to Medicare, to veterans' health care, to national security. States will lose billions in funding, and businesses will not receive payments on their contracts. Default would have a devastating impact on global credit markets and economic growth.

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment reads: "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

The Supreme Court has on only one occasion -- in the depths of the Depression -- had the opportunity to rule on this section. In that case, Perry v. United States, the Court said, "The Constitution gives to the Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States ... Having this power to authorize the issue of definite obligations for the payment of money borrowed, the Congress has not been vested with authority to alter or destroy those obligations." Now that Congress has borrowed money and incurred debt, we cannot -- as a nation and under our Constitution -- walk away.

This section was meant to ensure the payment of Union debts after the Civil War, and to disavow Confederate ones. But it was written in broader terms and extends well beyond those particular obligations. According to Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin: "You're not supposed to hold the validity of the public debt hostage to achieve political ends... Section 4 is a fail-safe that only comes into operation when everything else is exhausted."

In addition, under the "take care" clause the President has the authority under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Since Congress has previously authorized all the debts and obligations that would be in default on August 3, we believe this Constitutional authority would also reinforce your ability to increase the debt limit on an emergency basis.

Just as President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at a time of emergency in our Nation's history to free those who were enslaved during the Civil War, today you face a looming calamity that in some respects is just as grave.

The Congressional Black Caucus will stand behind you, and applaud your courage, as you fulfill your obligation to uphold the dictates of the Constitution to protect the full faith and credit of the United States. We urge you to do that which is necessary for the good of the country.

Sincerely, Emanuel Cleaver Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus John Conyers, Jr. Dean, Congressional Black Caucus Ranking Member, Committee on the Judiciary


Approved by 42 of 43 Members of the Congressional Black Caucus